Interview with François Ozon
ANGEL is adapted from a novel by Elizabeth Taylor. Why this particular book?
I read it in one sitting 5 or 6 years ago and thought it would be a perfect opportunity to try an epic film in the tradition of the 1930s and 40s melodramas, recounting the rise and fall of a flamboyant character. And I fell in love with Angel, she amused and fascinated me, and ultimately touched me very deeply. So I asked my producers to buy the rights.
It seemed clear that the story wouldn't work if it were transposed to France. It's a very English story, in the tradition of English women writers. The character of Angel was inspired by Marie Corelli, a contemporary of Oscar Wilde and Queen Victoria's favorite writer. Corelli was one of the first writers to become a star, writing bestsellers for an adoring public. Today she has been totally forgotten, even in England. She had no equivalent in France in her day.
In the meantime, you tackled another portrait of a woman writer in SWIMMING POOL.
That was a chance to get my feet wet, no pun intended! At the time, I didn't feel ready to adapt ANGEL, but SWIMMING POOL allowed me to explore some of the same themes: the relationship between a writer and her publisher, the frontier between reality and fiction, the origins of creative inspiration and certain aspects of British culture. A few years later I finally felt ready to take on the English language and Elizabeth Taylor's novel.
How did you go about adapting the book?
My main challenge was to make Angel likeable. In Elizabeth Taylor's book, the character is often grotesque. The author takes a rather sardonic view of Angel, her books and her behavior. Taylor acknowledges her ability to write and her drive to become famous, but ridicules her constantly, describing her as bizarre and unattractive. I didn't think we'd want to spend two hours with such an utterly negative character on screen, whereas in the book the cruelty works. I felt it was important that Angel be charming and endearing despite her more obnoxious, even nasty, characteristics. Scarlett O'Hara immediately came to mind. She is truly a character you love and hate at the same time. I wanted Angel to be aware of her powers of seduction and use them, particularly with her publisher and Nora. My Angel is more manipulative than Elizabeth Taylor's. But in a playful, amusing way, not perverse. In the beginning, everyone criticizes her: her teacher, her mother, her aunt, the publisher's wife. We can deduce that Angel and her work are misunderstood. This inspires sympathy for her and piques our curiosity, especially when she's writing. I wanted to draw the audience in before revealing, later in the film, that what's she writing might not actually be great literature.
I'd take it further and say we are drawn in by her determination to write, and aren't concerned about how good the writing is.
We realize that Angel's writing is not brilliant about twenty minutes into the film, when she's watching a play that has been adapted from one of her novels. That scene was invented to visually illustrate the essence of her writing. But I tried to temper the ridicule and the clear absence of literary merit with Angel's emotional reaction to her success. I wanted to show the creative force of someone who is capable of inventing an imaginary world, and who takes great pleasure in doing it.
How good the mystery or romance writer is doesn't interest me, it's their energy and inspiration. Where does it come from? How does it permeate their very being, blurring the line between reality and imagination? Does art breathe life into us, or suck it out? How committed must one be to one's art? Angel and Esmé are completely different, but they are both committed to their art. And they both lead failed lives. Esmé because he is weak, and lacks faith in his work. But in the end, perhaps Esmé, the avant-garde artist with integrity, will be the one who is remembered, while Angel, who had the strength to believe in her art and was indeed buoyed by her lack of self-doubt, will be forgotten. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that she touched people in her time, provided escape. So, which is more important if you're an artist? Having fame, fortune and acclaim during your lifetime before sliding into oblivion? Or struggling in the shadows and gaining recognition only after you're dead, like Van Gogh?
Do you feel closer to Angel or Esmé?
What matters to me is being able to create in the here and now. Will my work survive the test of time? I don't ask myself that question, it would paralyze me. Art can cross centuries, but it's also made for immediate consumption. I can relate to Angel's sense of urgency, her drive to create. Her pragmatism gets her out of her social condition. Her art is in service to her life. It allows her to buy her mansion, surround herself in luxury, get the man she loves and support him financially.
Despite his lies, Angel sincerely loves Esmé.
In the book, the love story was clearly a sham: Angel was in love with the idea of this romantic, brooding painter, their honeymoon was a catastrophe, Esmé was only in it for the money. Here again, I felt that in order for us to like Angel on screen, we had to believe in the sincerity of her love. Angel is mainly in love with her own personal idea of what love is, but at the same time she fervently believes in it, and she truly wants to help Esmé.
What about Nora’s desire for Angel?
In the book the homosexual subtext was present, but Nora was really ugly, she even had a mustache. I softened her up a bit, tempered her frustration and bitterness, brought her out of the shadows. I wanted her to have some appeal, not just be a slavish doormat devoted body and soul to her idol. In the book, Nora keeps her brother's mistress a secret from Angel in order to keep Angel for herself. In the film, Nora eventually tells Angel the truth about her brother's mistress. But shouldn't she have told Angel earlier, right after catching Esmé in the act? Suddenly Nora has a tragic dimension. She becomes an accomplice to Angel's suffering, torn between her desire for Angel and her bond with her brother.
You say you couldn't have brought a thoroughly despicable character to the screen. Does this suggest a more direct approach to emotion in your work, as we've seen in UNDER THE SAND or TIME TO LEAVE?
If I'd followed the book, the whole movie would have been like the scene where Angel dines with her publisher, where she behaves like a hysterical, manipulative monster. I could have continued playing with this rather farcical caricature, but I also wanted to explore Angel's complexities, discover her fragility behind the protective shield of her image as a strong woman who has rapidly climbed the social ladder. Her rise is all the more spectacular because she's a woman. She's her own boss, she chooses her husband, buys her own house and controls her career. Essentially she has broken free of her Edwardian shackles. She's sort of an early feminist. Women today can relate to her. But I wanted to show all sides of that coin, and reveal her multiple facets. Angel has built her life on lies and suppressed emotions. She is often in situations where she's playing a role, acting. But I also included scenes where she has no other choice than to be herself, like when she's humiliated at school, or when her mother dies. That scene was a mere line in the book, but I felt it could be a key moment of truth for Angel. She's devastated and feels abandoned. However that doesn't stop her from playing a "woe is me" scene for a journalist soon afterwards. I really wanted to capture this ambiguity in Angel, to alternate between distancing and identification.
We find the same layering of emotions at Esmé's funeral. The text Angel reads at church reveals that she has rewritten their love story, and we could assume her tears are exaggerated. But I think Angel is sincerely moved. She tells the story of two star-crossed lovers and their attempted suicide, which is absurd and bears no resemblance to the reality of Esmé's death, but she believes it. Deep down, Angel is a little girl who dreams of money, success and her Prince Charming. Like many teenagers today.
TIME TO LEAVE ends with a shot gradually emptying out. With this film, you've moved away from such minimalism.
Yes, Angel brought me into a much more baroque, ornate world, while my last few films were getting increasingly spare in detail. Angel is choc-a-bloc with vivid colors, a myriad of characters weaving tangled webs, single scenes covering the gamut of emotions and contradictions... But the film also ends on a rather simple note, accompanying Angel into poverty and emotional solitude. What I found most fascinating, beyond tackling the melodrama, was working with the passage of time: using ellipses, finding striking visual ways to illustrate turning points in a character's life, and experimenting with cross fades for the first time.
And the music? As with the editing, was it a question of finding an emotional balance?
I had in mind the music Frank Skinner composed for the Douglas Sirk melodramas at Universal. I even used some of it when we started editing the film and found it worked brilliantly. But I came to realize that it sounds dated to today's audience. So I asked my composer Philippe Rombi to take inspiration from Skinner's melodramatic music and not be afraid to wax lyrical, while at the same time coming up with a theme melody that reflects Angel's secret aspirations and thus facilitates audience identification with her.
Is it just a coincidence that you took on such complex, classical material in England, with English actors?
Right from the start, the English actors brought depth and complexity to the scenes, along with a level of acting that I have rarely seen. They prepared their roles in advance, using my indications and our conversations to really get inside their characters and bring them to life. Whereas French actors tend to work on a day-by-day basis, English actors are more like distance runners. Romola said she would work on her scenes a week in advance. It was a very pleasant surprise to see such hardworking, dedicated actors. Every day Romola would have a big scene to play and need to tap into a wide emotional spectrum. She never grew tired, she stayed the frenetic course with no complaints. The scenes were not shot in chronological order, but she was always prepared to play different ages and modify her accent to fit the scene we were doing.
What is it like directing actors in a language which is not your own?
I was apprehensive about it, but I soon managed to make myself understood. I knew my dialogues in French and I had worked closely with Martin Crimp on the English adaptation. We talked a lot, and he would explain the nuances of the language and his reasons for not always translating the French literally. In English, it's often possible to shorten the text and get straight to the point, without sacrificing ambiguity or irony. I wanted dialogue in the spirit of Oscar Wilde, lines that would give the actors something to work with but didn't sound too written. This seems easier to do in English than in French.
How did you go about casting the film?
Stories of this caliber are usually referred to as "star vehicles" in Hollywood. As a matter of fact, an American studio was interested in the film, but only on the condition that I work with an American screenwriter for a year and come up with a happy ending. If I did that, they promised they'd get me an American star! I preferred doing the film my way, with lesser-known actors and a smaller budget.
I worked with a wonderful English casting director who introduced me to the current crop of young British actors. I did careful screen tests and chose actors who were enthusiastic and available, and who hadn't yet gotten their big break in England.
What persuaded you to choose Romola Garai?
Romola understood the role. She wasn't afraid of the more grotesque aspects of Angel's character, and she brought charm and naivety to the part, with her big, dreamy, childlike eyes. Plus, she really liked Angel. Not all the actresses did. Many of them found her monstrous and mean, an anti-heroine, a liar, a failure - she frightened them! Whereas Romola played it straight, she approached Angel and Angel's life with no disdain whatsoever.
Michael Fassbender, who plays Esmé, is a revelation in the film.
In order for a modern audience to believe in Angel and Esmé as a couple, there had to be strong chemistry between them. And the young painter needed to be real, carnal, charismatic, insolent. Michael Fassbender has those qualities, he's a mix of irony and brute force. He's Irish, he has a different accent and a different manner than the English, he's more quirky and raw.
As for Sam Neill, he read the script right away and loved it. He found it both touching and amusing. His enthusiasm was a great comfort to me throughout the shoot.
And working with Charlotte Rampling again?
I'd worked with Charlotte twice before, and it meant a lot to me to have her with me on my first English-language film. It was really out of friendship that she accepted the small role of Hermione, who mirrors the audience's dubious attitude toward Angel. Her character is somewhat removed from the action. At the beginning, she finds Angel uncouth and annoying and thus judges her harshly, but her opinion gradually changes over the course of the film and by the end she defends Angel, saying that while she doesn't care for the writer, she understands the woman and feels some admiration for what she has accomplished.
And Lucy Russell?
I saw a lot of actresses for the role of Nora. During the screen tests, I realized that many of them actually wanted to be Angel. As soon as they'd finish reading, they'd say to me "I could play Angel too, I am Angel!" They had no desire to play a supporting role, whereas Lucy Russell didn't mind. She showed up for her screen test dressed like an old maid, with thick glasses and her hair in a strict bun. She was actually there to play Nora! Of course the role is far less glamorous than that of Angel, but Lucy was smart enough to know that it is often the person in the shadows who gets noticed, even if she's not the one wearing the beautiful dresses. And like Charlotte, Lucy speaks fluent French, so she was my second crutch on the set!
Who actually painted Esmé's paintings?
My production designer Katia Wyszkop, who also worked on Pialat's VAN GOGH, contacted Gilbert Pignol, the artist who did the paintings for that film. It was quite difficult to imagine Esmé's style, so we started with what Angel would like - ostentatious paintings which are all style and no substance - and conjured up the opposite. Esmé's work is at the other end of the spectrum, he's a dark, tortured Expressionist. He likes to paint cemeteries and working-class housing allotments, not your typical subject matter. Angel hates his paintings. She thinks art should be colorful, pretty and fun - it should enhance reality. For the portrait of Angel, we took our inspiration from the work of Lucian Freud, which is completely anachronous but helped us emphasize the public's general incomprehension of Esmé's work in the film. From a distance we can make out Angel's face, a bit dull, but as we move closer it looks decomposed, calling to mind Dorian Gray. The portrait is busy, the paint thick and chunky and crudely applied. It took us a long time to get that painting right. It had to be at once hideous and recognizable as Angel.
ANGEL is your first period film with costumes. How did you approach the task of recreating the era?
I needed realism in the beginning, to bring to life the world Angel is trying to escape: the town of Norley with its red brick streets, the grocery store, her mother... But when Angel moves to Paradise House, the historical references and the realism disappear. Suddenly we could do whatever we wanted with the decor and the costumes. We were free to enter Angel's imaginary world, indulging in and sharing her childlike bad taste, which brings to mind Louis II's castles in Bavaria!
When we were looking for funding in England, nobody could figure out why a French filmmaker would want to make an English period film: there are already so many on television! Period films are considered dated and academic. I wanted to break that stereotype, loosen things up a bit. I took quite a few liberties with the suggestions I was given by my English advisors. For example, Esmé has an open-casket funeral, which is a Mediterranean tradition, unthinkable in Protestant, Edwardian England. But I did it anyway, because this is Angel's world, and she doesn't care about social conventions. Angel is beyond codes, she's constantly reinventing her own reality, which is, alas, her only survival mechanism.
Interview with Romola Garai
How did you meet François Ozon, and what were your first impressions?
I met him at the audition for the role and I was extremely nervous, because I’m a genuine fan of his. Sometimes you read a script and you understand the character straight away, instinctively. I didn’t intellectualize it. And François didn’t guide me much. It seemed my idea of who Angel was corresponded to his idea. Later my agent told me François thought I was very good but not glamorous enough, so I tidied myself up a bit and went back a second time. I guess he didn’t like my cardigan!
Tell us about your screen tests.
I met François twice on my own, then with two different Noras, then with two potential male leads. So I had six auditions in the end, and I felt every time that I was being auditioned again. If I had been really bad in any of them, François would have gone back to the drawing board. I wasn't sure till very late in the day that I had the part. I couldn't believe François would cast someone with essentially no profile in the film world to play the lead role in his first English language film.
What did you think of the script?
I thought it was extraordinary, but very bizarre. I didn’t know what to make of it at first. It’s the kind of film that is very difficult to understand on the page. When you watch the finished film, you see that it is quite tongue in cheek and it works totally on two different levels. You have to be in on the filmmaker’s joke. And it is the filmmaker’s joke, not the characters’, as they have no perspective on the lives they’re leading. On the page that was quite difficult to grasp. But I had total faith in François’ innate talent. And I knew he was a great director of actors.
Did it feel like something written in a second language?
No, and that’s interesting. Though the book is English, when I read it I didn’t find it particularly English. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that the book was much more successful in France than it was in England. And it’s not a novel that relies heavily on language. The author doesn’t take great delight in description or vocabulary. Angel is about an extraordinary character, and novels about character translate quite well into film. Look at Dickens.
Were you familiar with the novelist Marie Corelli who was Elizabeth Taylor’s inspiration for the character of Angel?
I tried to read one of her novels but it was hard going. Bizarre books. Basic romance stories, but with a heavy moral element. The union of the male and female characters is all about moral improvement. Corelli talks at tedious length about what today would be perceived as conservative and simplistic moral issues, but she was also talking about passion and love. She herself was a very strange woman. She was barking mad. She lived her entire life with another woman. I don't know if they were lesbians. She was fiercely opposed to woman's lib and spoke and wrote at length about it, with the backing of Queen Victoria. She saw women as the moral bastions of the country and felt that if women tried to enter the male sphere they would be morally devalued.
Were there things about the character Angel which you related to or relished performing?
Yes. I relished many of her characteristics that are deeply unpleasant. Young actresses are rarely offered parts that are as complex as this one. You tend to get offered romantic leads, which by definition must be saintly characters, and Angel is not a saint. She's unpleasant most of the time, an egotist. But she is also brilliant, and she illustrates the plight of women who try to channel their creativity into something. Had Angel chosen to pour her intellect into something that could have won her critical acclaim, she would have failed. She was a woman born into a lower middle class family, who would never have got a university education, so she did the only thing that she could - she became popularly successful. I think she had talent but it was wrongly channeled, and that really moved me. It touched a nerve about the challenges of trying to win critical approval as a woman.
Were you apprehensive about the more grotesque aspects of the character?
I was, but I also loved those aspects because they are so much a part of her. I would have these brilliant conversations with Francois, I would say “maybe this is too much” and he would respond that it was part of a whole and reassure me. I was scared but I loved it, it was so much fun. It was rather like pantomime at times - playing a character who slips into the grotesque is fun. And yet Angel remains complex too, so as an actor I got to explore both.
Were you and Francois in tandem in your appreciation of Angel?
Francois and I both loved the character but I don’t know that we loved the same things. We’d have dinner together and I would go on about the class system and I could see his eyes glaze over. I had a political and literary interest in the film, whereas I think he liked the playfulness of the genre, and the possibility of creating characters who are at once horrific and appealing.
How did you prepare for the role?
I read the novel and also some of Elizabeth Taylor's other work to get a sense of where she was coming from. But that wasn’t hugely helpful as Angel is nothing like her other books. She usually writes about class, like Jane Austen, but Angel is different, it's darker and more perverse.
I took a lot of notes from Francois himself, because I knew the film would never work unless I did exactly what I was told. I followed his direction and I also worked a lot on voice, because I was playing a character who goes from 16 to 35 and he didn’t want to use any special make-up. So I concentrated on voice and movement for the end of the film.
Did the costumes inspire you?
Pascaline and François had already done the costumes before I was cast and they were utterly extraordinary. I saw racks and racks of clothes and asked if they were all for the film. Pascaline said they were just for me! I had some thirty dresses, handmade shoes, gloves. I have never had so many clothes in my life, and they were magnificent. Francois would come in and start throwing bits of fabric over me. He was very involved in every aspect of the film. I have never felt so like a canvas. For him a huge part of the film was visual and I just had to stand there like a china doll and watch as he got this glint in his eye and literally created Angel.
Do you and Angel have anything in common?
Angel delights in the fact that people don’t like her and find her bizarre. She wants to be liked and she wants to be taken seriously as an artist, but she also wants to be extraordinary and for that she is prepared to be disliked. She wants to be the center of attention, and as an actress I share that desire with her, I like drawing attention. To that end, it can be more rewarding and interesting to play an ambiguous character.
What did François see in Angel?
I was fascinated to see how much he had invested in her and how much he loved her. He didn’t want her to be too likeable yet he defended her all the time. Maybe it is simply because Francois loves actresses and Angel is an actress. His films are a testament to his love affair with extraordinarily brilliant actresses, and characters who are faced with desperate plights. He is deeply interested in their lives, their struggles with personal demons, their desire to be loved and noticed. And also their inability to understand who they really are, their tendency to play different roles in order to meet other peoples' expectations. I think that is the key to his fascination and sympathy for Angel.
Does he have sympathy for her as an artist, or for her plight as an artist?
I asked Francois whether he thought Angel was a great writer, a talented woman whose tragedy was the fact that she was a woman. He said she's a great writer who, through lack of education and lack of perspective on herself, ends up being a bad artist. For a director, as for any other artist, the idea that you might turn out to be bad is a frightening prospect. Angel incarnates that nightmare. She thinks she's good but she's terrible. She fills her life with people who say she’s wonderful, and yet everyone knows she's not. And that is horrific.
Was it hard to play this character?
Playing a character who is a bit crazy, with heightened emotions that are always spilling over, is not easy. I did nothing but work. I would just work and come home and do nothing else and see no one. I suppose I went a bit mad myself. I think when Francois cast me he thought he was casting a pretty laid-back person. A month later I'm sure he thought I was the most highly strung person he had ever worked with!
Interview with Michael Fassbender
What was your first meeting with François Ozon like?
I read with the casting director Karen Lindsay Stewart while Francois filmed. The four other auditions were with various actresses. It was really easy to audition for François. He’s open to ideas, and I felt I could explore some things, which was very refreshing. But I’m superstitious so although I had the impression it went well, it was nerve-racking. I had no idea if he’d pick me. I really wanted to work with him, but I was nervous. Five auditions, for God’s sake!
What do you think of your character, Esmé?
Esmé is the black sheep of the family, he likes to enjoy life on a sensual level: gambling, women, drink. I see him as a rebel, but he’s also a frustrated painter. He’s insecure. His passion in life, which is painting, does not make him happy. Ultimately he wants people to accept him and appreciate his work. He’s a contradiction: he tries to appear blasé, but he actually cares very deeply about his work, which everyone thinks is rubbish.
And what do you think of his art?
I know nothing really about art. I’ve got two left hands. I’m intimidated by a blank canvas. For me, art is about how you see the world around you and how you express it. In that sense, Esmé seems to have a pretty original outlook on art and on life. I liked the fact that, especially in that time period, drab locations were more inspiring to him. His realism appeals to me.
You actually paint in the film. What was that like?
Someone came round to give me a course on how to explore a blank canvas and I found it very relaxing and interesting. There was an artist on set, and we spent a lot of time working on the actual painting I would be doing on screen. It was great having him there, so I could study an artist’s personality at the same time I was learning how to hold a paint brush!
Does Francois have a particular work method?
He sets up an environment where the characters can exist, and I felt free to share my thoughts with him, whatever came to mind during a scene. I followed my instincts, and then he would be very precise about what he thought worked or didn’t work. It’s a productive, straightforward, quick way of working. He pares things down to basics. It’s not regimented, but organic.
How does he direct?
He talks to you as he films, while you’re acting. He operates the camera too, which surprised me, but he says he can’t see what you’re doing if he’s not looking through the camera. He makes funny noises all the time, too. Grunts of approval or disapproval, and just keeps filming till he knows he's got it.
What did you make of Esmé’s motivations?
We talked a lot about his motivations and the main point of concern was whether he actually loved Angel or if their relationship was just a move to benefit him financially. We decided that he never really loved Angel but that he convinced himself he did. She’s such a strong personality and so different, even nerdy, and all those things appeal to him. She awakens something in him that other women never have when it comes to his work. She trusts him and lets him into her world, which knocks him off balance, unsettles him and therefore interests him.
What is your opinion of Angel?
When I first read the script, I kept wanting Angel to redeem herself and do something nice. It was something that concerned me right up till we started filming, but once I saw the way Francois filmed it and Romola played her, I realized that you couldn’t help admiring Angel. Angel’s belief in herself and determination to do what she wants to do in a world dominated by men is quite something. If you walk away from the film unmoved, with no admiration or pity for her, you’ve missed the main idea of the film. I think you have to feel sorry for her. Here is this creature constructing her life as she does her books: she decides what love should be, what her life should be, how important her status in society is, but I don’t think she gets any genuine pleasure or nourishment out of any of it. I mean, look at the sex! She does it because she thinks that is what is required, rather than from any real desire.
ANGEL is partly a love story. How did you prepare?
It wasn’t difficult to play a love story with Romola. She's an attractive girl and a very good actress, so whatever you give her, she gives something back.
Interview with Denis Lenoir (cinematographer)
François Ozon brought me into the project at a pretty advanced stage of its stylistic development. The visual references were already well-established: Minnelli, Powell and Sirk, among others. Here was a director who knew exactly what he wanted. He made no secret that he'd hired me because some of my previous films demonstrated an ability to work within a certain tradition while bringing a contemporary vision to that tradition. So my mission on Angel was to create, through image and lighting, the look and feel of an authentic melodrama, while at the same time establishing a critical visual reading of the melodrama as narrative genre. What could be more exciting!
Starting with our main reference point - Technicolor from the great Hollywood melodramas - I enthusiastically set about doing my research. Originally, the ambitious plan had the film beginning with extremely dull tones, then moving into flamboyant Technicolor and finishing on a more subdued note. So for the first part I thought of Jack Cardiff's work on BLACK NARCISSUS (where Nathalie Kalmus, the wife of Technicolor inventor Dr. Herbert Kalmus and his official spokesperson, was banned from the set!). Then my reference became the Lumière autochromes for the heart of the film, and finally vintage Kodachrome for the end. François brought me back to a more homogenous palette, but my research was not in vain as this deep reflection on colors and contrast helped me as we continued our work.
We did some early tests in 35mm which allowed me to compare the results obtained by photochemical and digital processes. François had worked with digital techniques once before and hadn't been too happy with the experience. I wanted to show him that for Angel, we'd have more flexibility and could obtain more subtle nuances if we used digital grading.
Once I successfully demonstrated this, I still needed to capture what we were looking for on film, to get us halfway there, so to speak. Digital grading is wonderful, but it's still a major advantage to get the shot as close to right as possible in the first place. Having rejected photochemical treatments, I concentrated on finding ways to obtain desired contrasts with lighting and filters. And I experimented with the positioning of the keylight, from lateral in the beginning to more frontal during the height of Angel's glory days, then back to lateral for her decline. Finally, by avoiding all use of backlighting in the first part of the film, then using it generously to the point of artifice and excess for the rest, I contributed to the visual partitioning of the film.
François is truly the artistic director of his films, in the grand tradition of Sternberg, Cukor and Minnelli, from the original concept right down to the smallest details in costumes and decor. There isn't a single pleat in a curtain, nuance in a hemline or curl in a lock of hair that he hasn't examined carefully,
which justifies (if it needs justifying) his place behind the camera. From that vantage point, nothing escapes him. So my work, even when it involved the decor or costumes, always passed directly through him.
And that eagle eye of his was also trained on the more direct technical aspects of my work. Early on, I learned I could rely on him totally, he'd let me know if I'd made a lighting error that I couldn't pick up on the video monitor.
During the digital grading, François and I decided in the end to reduce the color differences between the beginning and the rest of the film. Whereas eight months earlier I had planned to really emphasize the dull tones in the first part of the film, it had now become obvious that the costumes and decors were already so monochromatic we would only be working on skin tones, which wasn't a good idea because we needed young Angel's cheeks nice and rosy. So we worked instead to achieve an overall visual unity for the film.
François and I both have high artistic ambitions, but we are both equally willing to question ourselves from film to film and over the course of a single film. I think that's why we got along so well.
Interview with Pascaline Chavanne (costume designer)
Collaborating with François Ozon
ANGEL is my eighth collaboration with François. Eight completely different films, each one exploring a different genre. In the same way, our working relationship has been different with each film.
He is always very involved in every aspect of costume design, selecting patterns, materials and colors not only for the lead roles but also for supporting roles and extras. Which makes our working relationship very intense and sometimes complicated, but always extremely rich. In the case of ANGEL this dynamic took on epic proportions, in keeping with the scale of the project.
If I were to compare, I would say 8 WOMEN was like a game, a huis-clos taking place in a single decor, a theatre piece, 24 hours in a dollhouse with eight characters in eight costumes.
ANGEL on the other hand drew us into a vast, extravagant and sometimes frightening universe. It's no surprise that, driven by this dynamic, our collaboration became quite whimsical. We had to create a world for a character who was sometimes difficult to figure out. She's a free woman, yet she's anything but modern, flouting all the fashion rules of her time.
This was tricky because the film was shot in both Belgium and England, with a crew of French, Belgians and Brits. We were always traveling.
The cast was entirely English so we clearly had to do some of the work in England. We made the costumes for Angel, Nora and Hermione in Paris, working with a tailor here, whereas the costumes for Angel's mother, her aunt and all the male characters were made in London.
Most of the extras' costumes come from London. For the ballroom sequence, François wanted all the women in pastel evening dresses. In order to achieve the aesthetic homogeneity he sought, we drew from four different stocks, mainly in Italy.
As with 8 WOMEN, our film references were Douglas Sirk's melodramas, DRAGONWYCK by Mankiewicz, GONE WITH THE WIND, Minnelli's GIGI and Scorsese's THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. We also discovered a wonderful BBC documentary called Electric Edwardians, which is full of archive footage shot in London in the early 1900s. Each of these films offered different insights into Angel's aesthetic universe: from the rigorous realism of the early Edwardian era to the flamboyant Technicolor of the 1950s.
These films and other sources, including photography collections like High Society, Golden Summer and La Femme 1900 led us to designers of the time, in particular the inescapable Charles Frederick Worth, whose color choices seemed to foreshadow the arrival of Technicolor.
I also took inspiration from authentic examples in costume museums in Kyoto and Paris, along with items found at the Clignancourt flea market. Some of Angel's dresses are made from real material from the time: silk, velvet, lace, satin, tulle, gauze, crepe de chine, braids, ribbons and all sorts of luxurious accessories like ostrich feathers and jet paneling.
The historical period
François wanted Angel to be completely out of sync throughout the story, which begins in 1900 and ends in 1928. The world experienced numerous upheavals and enormous changes in those 28 years. There was a world war, and morals and fashions naturally changed with the times. Angel's contemporaries followed the changes, which were particularly radical for women. For the freer modern woman, fashion became more practical and streamlined: the waist and the bust were freed from their constraints, the corset was eliminated, skirts were shortened and short hairstyles came in. Nora reflects these changes, but Angel pays no attention. She's too busy holed up in Paradise House inventing a fantasy life, dreaming of corsets and crinoline (also called crinoline cages), though they'd been out of style for ages.
The people she knows live in their time and follow its fashions, but Angel is a prisoner of the character she's created for herself to play. She wears outdated dresses without a clue of the image she's projecting. The most blatant example of this is the scene in which she meets Angelica. Here Angel enters a world which is not her own, a world she did not create. The year is 1928 and Angelica wears an authentic 1928 dress. She is resolutely modern compared to Angel, who is a vestige of the past in her corset and petticoats, her 1880 visite, her velvet skirt with its 1900 volumes, her 1900 ostrich feather boa and her ludicrous hat with the huge dead bird. She looks like a scarecrow! Angel has indeed become a frightening figure. She's like the Countess de Castiglione, a total egomaniac who spent her entire life trying to "arrange" her image and beat fate, and was famous for her flamboyant entrances and outrageous clothes.
Angel's early life is dull, so we gave her a little brown dress in cold tones which reflect her home town Norley. As she climbs the social ladder, she gains access to color and refinery.
The color green has been banished from the theatre as it is considered bad luck, but oddly it is also red's complementary color. When Angel goes to see Lady Irania, the play based on her first novel, she naturally wears an acid green pan velvet gown, which we dyed specially for the film because we couldn't find the exact color we wanted. The acidulated green was a perfect complement to the red theatre decor.
Angel's life is her stage. Her clothes reflect her vehement rejection of reality. In the "ballroom" sequence, she's playing a role. In her red crinoline gown, she competes with her female guests who wear pastel Paquin style evening dresses, which were all the rage in 1912. Crinoline went out of fashion before Angel was born and the tournure (or bustle) was out by the time she was six. At the age of 20, she's more than a decade behind the times and this gap will continue to widen. We wanted to stay true to the dressmaking techniques that were used in her day, so her skirt's volume is actually achieved with layers of petticoats rather than the crinoline cage she dreams of.
Angel plays the harp in her pink tulle tea gown with 19th century motifs. Hermione wouldn't be caught dead in such an outfit. An Edwardian upper-middle class intellectual, she wears a 1915 Redfern style suit and a plain travel coat. As for Angel's mother, subjected to her daughter's whims, she finds herself trapped in a terribly outdated leg-of-mutton sleeved dress.
In Western Europe, black is the color of mourning. The dresses have high collars and long sleeves: not a centimeter of skin should show. Only beaded jet panels temper this austerity. Angel respects these rules when she mourns her mother, but when her husband dies she thinks nothing of wearing a plunging neckline in public.
Interview with Katia Wyszkop (production designer)
When we finished TIME TO LEAVE, François Ozon gave me Elizabeth Taylor's book. I devoured it with great relish. The story was written in the 1950s and it's a pretty loose interpretation of the early 1900s, quite quirky with many improbable details.
For his first period film, François wanted a Technicolor feel, "a film like they made in Hollywood in the 1950s".
We talked about the possibility of creating all interior and exterior decors in the studio - a production designer's dream but a producer's nightmare!
In the beginning I retained some of the light, amusing ideas in the novel, but gradually my plans evolved in keeping with the screenplay and the new Angel François was creating for the screen.
We started working months in advance of the shoot, designing decors and studying their feasibility using 3-D previsualization techniques in the biggest studios in Europe. Our main reference was Mervyn Leroy's LITTLE WOMEN, a brilliant film shot entirely in the studio, with gorgeous snow scenes.
I was also fascinated by the mansion dreamed up by the heroine in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's DRAGONWYCK, and studied Orson Welles' THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for its perspectives, Victor Fleming's GONE WITH THE WIND for the richness and variety of its decors and Minnelli's GIGI for its free and audacious use of colors.
Our research for Paradise House led us through the castles and mansions of England, including those in West Yorkshire, the region which inspired Angel's home town of Norley.
After two months of research we had adapted to the needs of the co-production and drawn up a realistic budget. By July 2005 we had a coherent plan for all the decors in England and Belgium. Paradise House, Angel's grand residence, and its gardens were shot in England, while Angel's childhood in Norley was shot in poor parts of Belgium, where the brick architecture provided faithful exterior decors. Many Belgian mansions and stately homes have remained faithful to their period, so they provided a lot of our interiors, including Esmé's studio.
With a good handle on locations throughout England, I had a precise concept to propose to François. Throughout the preceding months he and I had lined up our references and ideas. To keep things cohesive, we had clearly developed plans for the studio sets and outdoor decors.
For Paradise House I selected Tyntesfield Estate near Bristol, a property bought by The National Trust in 2002. It's post-gothic style was immediately inspiring. It was built in 1898 by new money, so it's own history reflects that of Angel, mirroring her exuberant personality and her common roots.
We naturally changed the furniture and the layout of the rooms. We brought the first floor down to ground level and made sumptuous curtains for the giant windows to reflect Angel's taste for luxurious excess. The vast entry hall with its high ceiling included an impressive staircase, which was perfect as François wanted a grand staircase in the Hollywood tradition. To heighten the effect, we put up scaffolding and covered it with elaborate material embossed in gold that was made specially for the film. The National Trust was keeping a constant, watchful eye on us to make sure we didn't touch the walls, and their drastic rules didn't make life easy. Everything is hanging there as if by magic!
I took great liberties with Paradise House. After all, this was Angel's world and she hardly follows fashion! Her outrageous personality gave my imagination free reign. I really enjoyed transforming the place and I think we explored every avenue we had originally envisaged. We've got bold colors, half-baroque, half-gothic furniture, and an array of objects straight out of a curiosity shop.
Red is Angel's color, and her bedroom is an explosion of extravagance, with its oversized bed covered in red and pink embossed velvet, its gilded baroque dressing table and its gothic corner desk dominated by a large bow window.
Outside, we built a wall around most of the mansion, put in a large wrought iron gate displaying the name of the property, and improved circulation in the garden by installing a fountain.
We needed to suggest the passage of time, the seasons, and the progressive decay of the place. For summer, we covered the facade with creeper vines and wisteria. For winter, we put in snow which completely transformed the atmosphere of the place. For autumn, we let nature take its course with the changing colors of the leaves on the vines and trees. François wanted Angel's decline into solitude and despair to be reflected by a general decline in the decor and landscape, which was complicated to organize in terms of the shooting schedule but a fascinating thing to do.
Interview with Martin Crisp (playwright - english dialogues)
Working with François Ozon.
It was essentially a matter of understanding Francois’ vision of the film, and finding a tone in the translation that corresponded to this. Long conversations in several hotel rooms!
I knew Ozon’s UNDER THE SAND, and this made me curious. When I read the script I was attracted by the perversity of the story. This kind of story is usually about the young writer who suffers from being misunderstood and ignored, then turns out to be a genius. But Angel is materially successful from a very early age, and only begins to suffer when she is forced to confront her own illusions about her life and work.
Elizabeth Taylor’s novel.
I didn’t know Elizabeth Taylor’s novel. I read François’ adaptation first. A major aspect of the adaptation is the compression of time: this concentrates the storytelling, which in the book is more diffused. Ozon also suppressed some minor comic characters and increased the importance of Angel’s husband, the disaffected painter Esmé, whose failure and lack of confidence are a counterpoint to Angel’s worldly success.
In literary terms, what is noticeably English in the novel is its satirical tone, its distancing of the characters from the reader. Ozon’s adaptation quite naturally removes the narrated element, which makes the story more vivid for the viewer. Perhaps what remains peculiarly English is the emotional reticence of characters like Theo, Angel’s publisher, and his wife Hermione. This makes Angel’s own emotional turbulence all the more startling.